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A koala in care with RSPCA Queensland, cuddling a panda plush © RSPCA QLD / Peter Wilson

A koala in care with RSPCA Queensland, cuddling a panda plush © RSPCA QLD / Peter Wilson

Koalas Forever: Tackling chlamydia in koalas to bring them back from the brink of extinction

18 May 2021

Keywords
  • Partnerships
  • bushfire
  • koalas
  • threatened species
As part of Koalas Forever, WWF-Australia is on a mission to double the number of wild koalas on the east coast by 2050. We are working in partnership with organisations including Currumbin Wildlife Hospital and Tweed Shire Council to reach this ambitious goal.

When it comes to caring for sick and injured animals, the Currumbin Wildlife Hospital is one of the busiest wildlife hospitals in the world. Almost 600 koalas were admitted in 2020. And the main reason for admission is koala chlamydia. This deadly disease is having a huge impact on the koalas of southeast Queensland and northern New South Wales.

But there’s hope that a new vaccine trial could halt the disease. A partnership between WWF-Australia, the Currumbin Wildlife Hospital and Tweed Shire Council is set to bolster this effort. And after the devastating Australian bushfire season, our koalas need all the help they can get.

 

Koala dozes in a tree © Michael Williams II / Unsplash

Sixty percent of koalas that come into care at Currumbin Wildlife Hospital are admitted due to chlamydia. The other portion are admitted due to other reasons including human impact, but are also suffering from sub-clinical chlamydia. There are two forms of chlamydia, and it’s different to the one found in humans. The first form of the disease can irritate the koala's eyes and, if left untreated, can permanently blind them. The promising news is that if treated in time, koalas can make a full recovery from this symptom of the disease. 


But the second form is more severe. It can impact the koala’s kidneys and reproductive system, which can sadly lead to death. And even if they can be treated in time, it usually leaves the koala infertile.

 

Chlamydia is the leading cause of death and the biggest threat to the population of southeast Queensland and northern New South Wales koalas.

 

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That’s why a chlamydia vaccine is so vital to the survival of this iconic animal and why WWF-Australia is so proud to support this work.

 

“We’re very pleased to be able to support this crucial project to improve the resilience of koalas in the wild against the chlamydia infection,” says Tanya Pritchard, WWF-Australia’s Landscape Restoration Project Manager.

 

“This project is groundbreaking. It’s going to help us work out how effective this vaccine is. And once we’ve worked it out, we could roll it out across Australia and improve the health of koala populations nationwide.”

 

“I feel really positive that through this project we’re going to be able to tackle this threat to koala’s survival across southeast Queensland and northern New South Wales,” says Tanya.

 

WWF-Australia\

 

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The vaccine has been a decade in the making by researchers at the Queensland University of Technology. It’s given to the koalas in two separate doses, four weeks apart. But the koalas need to be monitored and aren’t released into the wild until after the second dose. And upon release, they’re fitted with a radio collar to track their health and response to the vaccine. After six months, they’re assessed to confirm the vaccine is working and that they are free from chlamydia.

 

With a team of six wildlife vets, 18 nurses and an army of 120 volunteers, it’s all hands on deck at the Currumbin Wildlife Hospital.

And it’s all thanks to WWF-Australia supporters who are helping to fund this crucial work.

 

We recently caught up with Michael Pyne, the Senior Vet at Currumbin Wildlife Hospital, to find out more.
How will the vaccine program help?

It is our goal for this vaccine to become a preventative management method in curing chlamydia in koalas – we want to prevent the problem rather than band-aiding the issue.

 

This vaccine has been around for a while and, while we already know it produces good antibody response to the disease, we don’t know exactly how good it is at protecting from the disease. This new vaccine program will really challenge the vaccine and help us decide the best next step forward for management.

 

We want to know if this vaccine is the answer to turning around the fate of the southeast coast koala populations because right now, koala deaths from chlamydia are on the rise.

 

Dr. Michael Pyne hopes this vaccine program will help build towards a generation of koalas immune to chlamydia © WWF Australia / Patchworks Agency

How does it feel seeing so many sick koalas?

I’ve been at Currumbin Wildlife Hospital for more than 20 years and sadly treated thousands of koalas with this very common and very lethal disease.


It’s devastating seeing so many koalas come in with the same problem. It’s particularly hard seeing koalas you have once cured of chlamydia being readmitted with the disease.

 

It’s the nature of the disease. It can lie dormant in their body and then flare up when they come in physical contact with it again.

 

Why is this work so crucial?

There are other threats to koalas, but there are management strategies in place, like good signage and public awareness, that are helping to reduce the rate of koalas being hit by cars or attacked by dogs.

 

But the number of koalas dying from chlamydia is rising as we haven’t previously had a successful management strategy. This research is the start of that management strategy to prevent chlamydia for the future and come up with a way that will manage this disease in an ongoing way.

 

What could happen to koalas if we don't act now?

The big problem with koalas becoming sterile is that it could lead to a population crash. If we don’t take action now, the worst could happen, and we could eventually completely lose koalas around the northern NSW east coast.

 

Kevin at Port Stephens Koalas Wildlife Hospital © WWF-Aus / Madeleine Smitham

 

Help fund the research saving koalas by donating to Koalas Forever.

 

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The hope is that one day a generation of genetically strong koalas will come through that have a level of immunity against chlamydia, but to assume that will happen is a risky strategy. It makes me feel hopeful that we’re starting to solve problems and find solutions for the future.

 

How has the partnership with WWF-Australia helped?

The funding from WWF has allowed us to do this project. Thank you to all the supporters and donors out there that have contributed to this project as it will make a big difference!

 

Help support our koalas
 Your donation will help us double the number of koalas along the east coast of Australia by 2050 through supporting critical and life-saving programs just like this. Make a tax-deductible donation before 30 June to Koalas Forever and help us secure the future for this iconic species.

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